How to Build A Storm Shelter: Underground and Above Ground Constructions

Placing epoxy to adhere the storm shelter
David Dawson
Written by David Dawson

With today’s unstable climate, the weather is changing rapidly and can hit with a surprising power, leaving destruction in its wake. Some countries and continents are more prone to disastrous events, storms, hurricanes, flash floods, etc. and people in these areas should be much more concerned with their family’s (and their own) safety. Many people in the USA build their own home shelters and this trend has been on the rise within the last couple of years.

There are basically two types of shelters – above ground (or ground level) and underground. For either of these there are some specific conditions. For example, you should not build an underground shelter in a flood area. On the other hand, if the area is safe from floods or ocean tides (including tsunamis), then you’re good to build underground.

Digging to make a shelter

Of course, the best idea is to consult a professional builder or architect who knows the area, the soil, etc. Otherwise, we’ll give you some basic advice, tips and guides on how to proceed and build your own storm shelter, both above and below the ground level.

Build your own underground storm shelter

As we mentioned above, your first steps are to evaluate the area where you plan to build the underground shelter. Again, if you live in a coastal area, prone to flooding or tsunamis, you shouldn’t build a shelter underground, because it may easily be flooded. Thus, the shelter would actually be even more dangerous if you rely on it to take cover during a hurricane or other disaster.

When you’ve evaluated the area, next you need to see if the soil is good for building a shelter. If you don’t have a basement (where to build it), you will have to dig an entirely new area underground. This means you have to build the walls, ground floor of the shelter, and make sure they are strong and durable enough to sustain the soil’s pressure. This procedure may be more expensive since you will have to retrofit the entire house to the new building.

Digging a hole

On the other hand, if you have already a basement room under your house, that would be a great way to start building your own storm shelter. You can build the shelter’s own walls and cement it to the basement’s ground floor.

Once you have determined what type of underground shelter you will build you can start making more plans.

Let’s begin by explaining how to build an underground shelter within the ground (no basement required). First of all, you need to make some plans and draw some blueprints on how large – wide and tall – the shelter will be. Depending on your family, you need about 10 square feet per person for hurricanes. If you expect more tornados, about 7 square feet should be enough (since tornados last less than hurricanes).

When you’ve determined that space, plan on an area within the shelter to accommodate some food stores, water bottles, blankets, first-aid kits and other such important safety items.

As you plan the shelter, you will have to build a door on ground level so you can approach the shelter from above. The actual shelter should be separated from the food stores with a ladder, which you’ll use to climb up and down the shelter. So, for that, you’ll need two doors – one for the shelter and one for the storage room.

Now after calculating the size of the shelter, you’ll have to start digging a hole. Ideally it should be larger than the planned size of the shelter so you can have enough room to build it and operate there while building it. Keep in mind that you can opt for a berm shelter, which isn’t completely underground, but has a door on the ground level.

The difference is that the entire shelter is covered by soil and grass, so it can blend nicely with the environment and can look like a naturally uneven ground. It may be considered an above-ground shelter but has the look of an underground one.

Next, as you dug the large shelter hole, you’re ready to use concrete to make the walls. They have to be at least 5 inches thick. Let the concrete cure completely before going on to the next step.

Further on, you have to make a dome-shaped construction as the outer frame of the structure. Then you can add fiberglass, wooden constructions and metal mesh to further enforce the entire shelter. Add anchors to the additional frame, so you can have more stability. Then you can build another concrete layer on top of this metal construction. This will give even more stability to the shelter.

Concrete bricks for underground shelter

Further, plan an additional metal mesh layer on the shelter’s roof to give it strength to withstand strong winds and heavy debris, which may fall on top of it. You’re then ready to install the door. It should have a steel and concrete frame, and also should have 3 dead bolts. Remember, the door must open to the outside, which means the hinges must also be installed on the outside of the construction. As a final touch, optionally add a water-resistant membrane on top of the shelter.

To improve the look of the construction you can add masonry above it. It will add further protection, if you build the masonry with concrete and metal frames.

Underground shelter

Finally, you can improve the interior of the shelter by adding some benches, even couches (if you expect hurricanes), and more comfort in case of longer natural events and disasters. When it comes to furniture, make sure to add only the most important items inside, and ideally they should be foldable so they can make plenty of room when folded.

Also, don’t be tempted to use the shelter for a storage room when you place any unwanted objects, bikes, etc. This room should always store only the most important items for survival, including plenty of space so that everyone feels comfortable.

How to build an above ground storm shelter

We already mentioned the berm shelter, but now it’s time to add more details as to how to build this type of shelter. There can be half-berm and full-berm shelters. Half-berm means that half of it is below the ground level, while full-berm is entirely above ground.

These shelters are very useful during storms, since, in order to build them you need bags filled with earth. You build the construction using these bags as if you use bricks. While bricks are brittle and can break easily (can’t withstand strong forces), earth-bags are much heavier and stay in place, once positioned there.

You have to reinforce the construction using additional wooden or metal frames to give the shelter more support. The shelter should ideally be not as large as an underground shelter, since it may not be as stable (if spread over a large area), but it can safely give a safe room for one family. First you need to mark the area on which you’re going to build. If you live in a flood prone area, don’t do a half-berm shelter, or it will quickly fill with water and ended up flooded.

Flooded storm shelter

As you’ve determined the building site, begin by placing earth-bags in a circle (this shape gives the most support and strength for the structure). Start layering the earth-bags as if you build brick walls. Then build a strong metal frame inside and outside, in addition to strong wooden frames to further strengthen the shelter. If you want you can re-enforce the metal frame by using concrete around it and protect the metal frame from breaking, thus protecting the inner earth-bag shelter.

Find a strong steel door with deadlock latches and strong hinges. The door should be certified by FEMA for being storm or tornado proof and can withstand strong winds of above 200 mph. The door should also have been tested and passed these tests successfully. Usually testing such doors means that missiles are shot towards the doors at a great speed. If the missile punctures the door, then it’s not strong enough.

Another type of above ground shelter is similar to the one shown in the previous section. You will need all the concrete, metal, etc. materials to build this shelter either inside your house, attached to your house or nearby the house (no further than 150 feet from your house).

Storm shelters

Again, determine the size of the shelter, by calculating how much space will be needed for each member of your family (no more than 10 square feet per person). Next you have to prepare the necessary building material and tools. If you want to incorporate the shelter to your house you’ll have to do some retrofitting of the house. That, as we mentioned, can be more costly.

If you want to build the shelter within the house’s constructions while you’re in the process of building your house, then such a shelter will actually be much more economical. If this is possible, we highly recommend this option. If not, building the shelter as an attachment to your house may be more financially economical than retrofitting the house and building it within the house’s construction.

So, begin by gathering concrete. You have to start by laying the ground flood. Use metal frame for it and lay concrete on the frame. Let the concrete cure completely before you continue. If you want, you can first lay one layer of concrete, then use a hammer drill to make holes in the concrete and then place metal frame anchors in the holes. Wait for the concrete to cure completely.

Then paint glue over the entire concrete surface and you’re ready to lay one more layer of concrete over the metal frame. The glue will stick the two concrete pieces perfectly. You’ll have to wait for the entire ground block you made to be fully cured. One trick used by professional builders is to soak the concrete with water, while it cures. This prevents the concrete from cracking.

So, you’re ready to start layering the bricks and start building the walls. Always used metal frames, so they give further stability and strength to the construction. Drill holes through the bricks and let the metal frame run through the holes. When you’re done with one brick layer always pour concrete within the bricks’ cell area. This will give enormous strength to the shelter. Also, soaking the concrete with water while it cures is always a good practice, so keep doing that now and then.

Concrete reinforced doors

In the beginning process the metal frame will look like prison frames. As you keep building the bricks around the frame the construction will start to look more and more like a shelter.

When you reach the edge of the shelter, you need to make a special brick layer, which you have to construct separately. Take the bricks you need. Lay them down on a wooden surface and drill holes along the length of each brick. You need to thread metal sticks through all the bricks, so that all of them can act as one layer and they have the wooden sticks/frame for more support.

You can then add that final edge layer on top of the shelter you’re building. This will give it a nice finish. Basically, the edge should reach the top part of the room you’re building in. Or if you’re making the shelter as an attachment, measure how high the construction should be, so that people can feel comfortable inside.

Next, you need to begin attaching a roof to the shelter. You have to bend the sticking metal frames so they are horizontal. As the metal frames are bent, you can continue adding more metal frames and attach them to the existing one, making a complete metal mesh. For the next steps, use a wooden frame for a while, until the process is finished. Use concrete one more time and begin pouring it on the roof. You should have wooden frame below the roof, so that, when you pour the concrete, it can dry in the shape of a roof. The wooden frame is crucial for this step.

You will then have to drill holes through the wooden frame, so that you can have a bit of ventilation, otherwise you may suffocate in this room if you stay there for too long. You can also run some electricity (cables) through the room, if you want to have the shelter wired. You can have lamps or any other type of light inside. Make sure the cables are isolated within tubes along the walls or roof, so they aren’t exposed.

For the air conditioning, you can leave a small area within one of the wall unblocked.  You can then buy a very thick and sturdy metal frame, which to put in that place. Use heavy bolts and secure it to the wall. If you want you can place a real air conditioner in that area, but that’s optional. Isolate any other open areas, so that they are safely blocked.

Finally, again doors are important and we won’t say anything you don’t already know. The door needs to be of steel or metal concrete and can withstand strong winds of up to 200 mph. They have to bear the FEMA stamp that they are certified to offer good reliable protection. They should be missile tested and have a certificate for that too.

FEMA inspection

You’re more or less ready to improve the inside of the shelter by providing more comfort. You can place a soft carpet or any other soft layer for the ground. You can prepare foldable chairs, tables, or benches. Always keep safety items and first-aid kit inside the shelter at all times. They have to be close at hand if anyone needs it. Keep warm blankets and even sleeping bags in case you need to rest. If there are people in your family with special needs, consider their comfort as well and take appropriate measures.

Also, make sure to leave the shelter to have all the smells of paint, chemicals and other used during the building process, be removed and escape. Let the shelter like that for at least a week and test it by keeping it closed for 24 hours and then go in and see if there are some smells left over.

Of course, keep plenty of water and food in the shelter. You may also want to have some toilet if you plan on spending more than a day in the shelter. This is of course highly possible for storm shelters, so prepare a small chemical toilet, but make sure it’s safe and there’ no risk of chemical spillage.

Deconstructing safe room infographic

After you finished with everything consult with a professional builder or architect so they can give you feedback on the construction. You can consult them during the entire process of course (and it’s highly advisable). This will give you much more confidence in the end result.

David Dawson
David Dawson

David Dawson is a retired security specialist with over 20 years of experience. He worked for a secret manufacturing facilities and hospitals in Illinois. David's responsibility was to protect people in case of any disaster or cataclysm that might occur. Now he keeps on doing it through teaching others about how to prepare and survive flood, earthquake or even war.

  • Paulette Rushing

    Please do yourself and your family a favor and start building a storm shelter. Make sure to follow the guidelines, and only use the high-quality material. There’s no benefit in using cheap grade material, what is the use of the shelter if it can’t allow you and your family to survive the storm?

    • An underground storm shelter is extremely important, nowadays. You can also make good use of it beside protecting your family from a storm.

  • Mike Miller

    An underground storm shelter has become a necessity nowadays. It can provide shelter for you and your family in any natural disaster. Life is all about survival, so it’s better to be prepared for any situation.

    • David Dawson

      Underground shelters are without a doubt the best shelters for surviving any natural disaster, including storms and hurricanes. There is no better way of preparing for a natural disaster than building an underground shelter.

  • James Turner

    You never know when the weather is going to turn it’s back on you. So, why not be prepared for whatever is coming in our way? I would say, it is one of the basic needs to have a storm shelter beside your home or underground to withstand the rough conditions.Do not even think about compromising the quality of your shelter as it would be the only thing standing between life and death of you and your family!

  • Gary Brown

    I absolutely agree with bolting than hammering a nail. Building a storm shelter would mean you’re getting ready for a kind of storm that has the power to yank away materials. Bolts have high tensile capacity so they’re the better choice. I plan on transforming my basement into an emergency room. Good post.

  • David Dawson

    With today’s unstable climate, you should build your own storm shelter, and the most important thing is knowing the specifics.

  • David Dawson

    There are numerous storm shelter designs you can choose from. However, you can make the necessary adjustments to suit your needs by hiring a storm shelter expert.

  • Daniel Carter

    There is a lot of valuable insight that can be seen here, but making storm shelters involves a lot of time and work. Do you think it is possible to use big metal shipping containers, and bury them underground instead of making a room from scratch? It might save time that way but I don’t know if it is sturdy enough.

    • David Dawson

      In most cases, experts suggest that storm shelters should be encased with steel. The use of shipping containers is not a good idea. They are not built for lateral pressure and not made for long-term wetness or acidic/caustic soil.

  • David Dawson

    An underground shelter/ storm shelter is actual a hurricane shelter. Therefore, it should be able to withstand the effects of a hurricane. Of course, construction details matter a lot. This article provides you with detailed tips that should prove helpful.